COP26 and the Case for Climate-Smart Agriculture Investment

December 13, 2021 By Katherine Larson

At the Tokyo Nutrition for Growth Summit, USAID Administrator Samantha Power announced that the United States intends to invest up to $11 billion over three years to combat global malnutrition — the underlying cause of almost half of childhood deaths globally. Climate change endangers the agricultural sector’s capacity to produce food and address the growing hunger crisis. It is increasingly vital to invest in climate-smart agriculture in order to eliminate hunger as a second-order impact of climate change.

COP26: New Agriculture Initiatives

From October 31-November 12 at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, world leaders rolled out new plans and strategies to prevent and mitigate the worst impacts of climate change, including the U.S. government’s commitment to expanding climate-smart agricultural strategies and practices. U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry emphasized the importance of agriculture in the U.S. approach to climate adaptation and mitigation, saying, “We cannot get to net-zero if agriculture and deforestation are not part of the puzzle. … We need to do regenerative agriculture and we need to build resilient agriculture.”

At the summit, President Biden announced his new President’s Emergency Plan for Adaptation and Resilience (PREPARE), a whole-of-government framework to address the increasing impacts of the global climate crisis and to help more than half a billion people in developing countries adapt to climate change by 2030. In the largest ever U.S. commitment to reduce climate impacts, the President plans to provide $3 billion in adaptation finance annually by FY2024. This framework will include global climate-smart agricultural investments through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), building on existing programs to make agriculture more sustainable in low-income countries.

The U.S. also announced the new Agricultural Innovation Mission for Climate (AIM4C) investing $4 billion in increased investments in climate-smart agriculture and food systems innovation over the next five years (2021-2025). AIM4C, a multilateral initiative led by the United States and United Arab Emirates, features multilateral partners, the private sector, and nonprofits including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and PepsiCo. AIM4C will focus on climate-smart agricultural research to help smallholder farmers in the developing world, a smart investment since every dollar invested in climate-smart agricultural technologies returns at least $4 in benefits to smallholder farmers, according to USAID.

Climate’s Destructive Agricultural Impacts

Increasingly severe and frequent floods, droughts, wildfires, and storms are threatening food production and driving up food prices, which have reached their highest level since July 2011. The changing climate increased U.S. crop insurance losses by $27 billion in the past 27 years. Meanwhile, destructive pests and viruses are becoming more common. In early 2020, East Africa and India were plagued by massive locust swarms which emerged from wet conditions linked to climate change, destroying crops and exacerbating food insecurity.

Changing weather patterns are also affecting growing seasons and regions suitable for growing certain crops, critically impacting and potentially destroying export markets for climate-sensitive goods like avocados, bananas, and cacao. The number of regions in Africa suitable for growing coffee, a major export, is predicted to fall up to 50 percent as temperatures rise. This would potentially wipe out a key source of livelihood for 10 million coffee farmers across 25 nations, with devastating follow-on humanitarian impacts. As supply chains are disrupted, this would affect the greater coffee industry and consumers world-wide, as imported coffee prices would skyrocket in the face of decreased supply.

If unchecked, climate change will severely impact the ability to produce food. According to USAID, temperature increases are likely to reduce yields of critical crops, such as wheat and corn, by up to 30 percent between 2030 and 2050 without significant action. At the same time, food production needs to increase by at least 60 percent to adequately feed a growing global population by 2050.

A robust and sustainable agricultural sector is not only necessary for global food security, but also for economic security, especially in middle- and low-income nations. The agricultural sector employs over 2 billion people worldwide, and more than half of people in developing countries live in rural communities economically dependent on agriculture. Investing in climate-smart agriculture is necessary to prevent potential loss in years of development investments. Every dollar invested in climate adaptation and resilience saves $3 in humanitarian assistance when a crisis, like famine, drought, or conflict, strikes.

The U.S. government has invested in research and development at home and abroad, with a focus on regenerative, resilient, and sustainable agriculture for 15 years. USAID has seen significant success stories on the value of climate-smart agricultural research:

“USAID spent more than a decade investing in research with the private sector and international agricultural research centers to develop a variety of maize that was drought-tolerant and adapted to conditions on the ground. … In 2016, when the El Niño drought hit southern and eastern Africa, six million farmers were able to plant this new seed. Smallholders growing drought-tolerant maize in 13 African countries generated $160 million more in 2016, which was a drought year, than if they had grown regular maize.”

American investment in climate-smart agriculture has already paid off by fostering resilience in communities subject to the worst impacts of climate change, and further investment will be vital to protect food systems from severe disruption.

What’s It Worth?

As America and its partners face global challenges including hunger, poverty, and addressing the root causes of migration, what’s it worth to build climate-resilient communities and mitigate the impacts of climate change?

In the words of USAID Administrator Samantha Power, “If we can’t support our partners in adapting [to climate change], we know there’s going to be more conflict, more displacement, and the knock off humanitarian effects will be profound.”

While climate change brings significant risk to global food security and the agricultural sector, there is also significant opportunity for climate adaptation and mitigation. According to the World Wide Fund For Nature, 20 percent of the emissions reductions needed by 2030 could be delivered by climate action in the food system through initiatives like increasing productivity to reduce land use and post-harvest loss. Additionally, agricultural soil is capable of sequestering massive amounts of atmospheric carbon, offsetting greenhouse gas emissions.

Investing in climate-smart agriculture pays off in increased food security, reduced migration, and a more sustainable future, especially in the developing world. Agriculture can go from being a piece of the climate problem to part of the solution, and there is great potential for regenerative agriculture and increased food production to feed the world through 2050 and beyond. It’s worth a healthier, safer future for all.